First their GM pharma rice growing was stymied in California, forcing a move to the Monsanto state of Missouri. Now amidst a welter of opposition in Missouri, Ventria are running out of time and are targeting... North Carolina!
Meanwhile in the background: "The Grocery Manufacturers of America, whose members represent $500 billion in annual sales, insists that the government lacks a way to prevent contamination of food with synthetic proteins destined for drugs.".
Biotech firm puts off rice crop here
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
St Louis Post Dispatch, 28 April 2005
WASHINGTON - The California company that riled Bootheel farmers and Anheuser-Busch Cos. with a plan to grow pharmaceutical rice in Missouri has given up on planting in the state this year and instead is aiming at North Carolina.
Scott Deeter, president and chief operating officer of Ventria Bioscience, said Thursday that he saw no hope of winning approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in time to plant its special rice in Missouri this spring.
But Deeter said that his company intended to plant next year in Missouri and to follow through with a plan to make Missouri and the campus of Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville Ventria's permanent home.
"There's no doubt in our minds that there's a very strong and visionary commitment in Missouri to biotechnology," he said.
The decision not to plant here this year is a setback for Gov. Matt Blunt and Missouri political leaders who fought for the California company and the goal of elevating Missouri's status as a biotech leader. Allied in opposition were rice growers, major food companies and environmental groups that tried to prevent companies like Ventria from getting permission to convert croplands into factories for drugs.
Ventria had obtained preliminary approval from the Agriculture Department to plant some 200 acres in southeast Missouri with rice that is genetically engineered to produce human proteins for use in drugs. But the company encountered an 11th hour uprising by rice farmers who feared accidental contamination of their crops and damage to a $100 million industry that depends heavily on exports.
Anheuser-Busch's recent declaration that it would not buy Missouri-grown rice if Ventria planted in the Bootheel sent Ventria scurrying to find sites elsewhere for its rice.
With the Agriculture Department promising additional scrutiny of a last-minute site in southwestern Missouri, Deeter said he concluded that the company could not meet a May 20 deadline for spring planting.
Ventria hopes to plant its pharmaceutical rice in Missouri next year, Deeter said, and already has begun sowing varieties of conventional rice in the state to determine which variety can grow well when genetically engineered.
On Wednesday, Ventria submitted requests in Washington for new permits that would allow the company to plant on 70 acres at two undisclosed locations in North Carolina.
An Agriculture Department spokeswoman said the company was seeking approval, as in Missouri, to plant rice that produces lactoferrin and lysozyme, proteins that occur naturally in human breast milk, tears and other bodily fluids.
The company already had received one permit from the Agriculture Department for planting its engineered rice on five acres in North Carolina.
It was uncertain whether Ventria could meet a deadline for planting this spring in North Carolina, because the government may take public comments for at least 20 days before making a decision.
The Agriculture Department is under pressure to turn down Ventria's request and others like it. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, whose members represent $500 billion in annual sales, insists that the government lacks a way to prevent contamination of food with synthetic proteins destined for drugs.
On Thursday, advocacy groups presented Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns with 30,000 signatures asking for a ban on the use of food crops to produce drugs.
Ventria has insisted that its specialty rice can be contained.
Northwest Missouri State University President Dean Hubbard said Thursday that his institution planned to proceed with a $30 million agricultural pharmaceutical center that would house Ventria and other companies. Hubbard helped raise $5 million to persuade Ventria to relocate from Sacramento, Calif., to Missouri.
"We're moving ahead. I have no doubt about that at all. The architects are busy," said Hubbard, who recently became a Ventria board member.
Reporter Bill Lambrecht